The Bonstelle Theatre’s current staging of “James and the Giant Peach,” which is adapted by David Wood from one of Roald Dahl’s early works of juvenile fiction, is a series of spectacles to delight the eyes. Dahl has an international reputation for crafting children’s stories with a distinctly macabre touch. He doesn’t mind scaring young readers and, given his incessant popularity, they must enjoy being scared. Especially if it’s all in service to a magical adventure that ends well for the hero. This formula works especially well in live theater, where the colorful staging and preposterous situations make even the evil grown-ups’ behavior laughable.
The Bonstelle production is so well conceived – combining old and new production tricks to bring the magic to life – that adults will be entertained just by the inventiveness of the storytelling. This show also includes original music by Detroit-born composer Neal Warner. And there’s plenty of interactivity to keep wiggly children entertained; the audience is even, on occasion, asked to help James and company out of a jam. In fact, before every performance, beginning at 6 p.m., patrons are invited to go upstairs for an arts-and-crafts project in order to create paper-plate seagulls that are used to help rescue the friends and their peach from hungry sharks.
With all its embellishment, the stage version remains true to the 50-year-old story in a way that pays homage to the darker side of Dahl’s story while emphasizing all that is fantastic, weird and magical. The play opens as young James, a British orphan, steps out of his peach-pit home in Manhattan, introduces us to his giant insect/arachnid/worm friends, and offers to tell his story. It begins quite tragically when his parents are eaten by a rhinoceros that’s escaped from the London Zoo. This is staged by having multiple actors manipulate the head, body and legs of a cartoon-like rhino as it chases the parents across the stage and into the wings, from whence we hear an enormous “burp.” The opening night audience (including many children) laughed at the absurdity of the situation and eagerly looked forward to what would happen next.
James’ next trial comes in the form of two cruel, villainous old aunts who put James to work as their personal slave. In their yard is a barren old peach tree, and since even those who haven’t read the book have read the title of the play, we are all eager for the inevitable giant peach to appear. It does, in a quite spectacular fashion, bringing along the unusual friends who whisk James off on a quick series of bizarre adventures.
This production of “James and the Giant Peach” is the vision of guest director Katie Campbell, who hails from the Arkansas Art Center’s Children’s Theater where she is both the associate director and a company actor. “As a theatre artist, I am drawn to James’ journey of personal transformation,” she says. “Although the story was written over fifty years ago, I feel the themes of perseverance and friendship transcend the decades to resonate with the youth of today.”
The actors in this show all seem to enjoy the challenge of reaching the children (and adults) in the audience and pulling them into the story. Ironically, perhaps, the actor who plays the spunky young hero of the title is a U.S. Marine Core veteran who discovered his gift for live theater. His performance is energetic, compassionate and offers a childlike way of staying in the moment. James doesn’t dwell on the past and we like him better for it. The cast also features the talents of Pierce King (Grasshopper), Keira Elyse Schmitt (Spider), Bradley Smith (Centipede), Michaella Mallett (Lady Bird), Matt Paciorkowski (Earthworm), Gaia Klotz (Spiker), Stephanie Stoiko (Sponge), Katherine Akers (Ensemble), Katelyn Battendorf (Ensemble), John Brenner (Ensemble) Anna Busse (Ensemble), Josue Camarena (Ensemble), Joe Gaskill (Ensemble), Timothy Hiemstra (Ensemble), Kevin Keller (Ensemble), Kate Martinez (Ensemble), and Kayla Rodriguez (Ensemble).
Campbell’s staging employs colorful and visually arresting theatrical devices to engage our imaginations. Puppetry, light projection, balloons, balls, bubbles and inventive sound effects all combine to make this a memorable, emotional experience. There are many beautiful scenic moments, but our favorite has to be the underwater escapade that seems tranquil enough until it involves a battle with a giant squid. The costumes are wonderful, with beautifully nuanced wardrobes to create the non-human characters without resort to rubber masks or distracting faux appendages. Campbell’s creative team includes Tonae Mitsuhashi, Scenic Designer; Mary Copenhagen, Costume Designer; Sarah Bloch, Puppet Designer; Mario Raymond, Lighting Designer; and Valerie Frawley, Sound Designer. The Technical Director is Brian Dambacher, the Stage Manager is Catelyn Girard, and publicity is by Dale Dolin.
This is authentic family entertainment and with a 60-minute running time, is suitable for most children. Following each performance, there will be a meet and greet with the cast, with the opportunity to take pictures, ask questions and enjoy more of the magic. “James and the Giant Peach” runs at Wayne State University’s Bonstelle Theatre through November 22, 2015. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., plus special student matinee performances on Tuesday, November 18 at 10 a.m. and Wednesday, November 19 at 10 a.m. For box office hours and more information on performances, tickets, group discounts, and corporate packages, call the box office at 313-577-2960 or visit the theatre’s website. (For group rates and booking information, contact group sales at 313-577-0852 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.) The Bonstelle Theatre is located at 3424 Woodward Ave in Detroit, just south of Mack Avenue.